Mars and Johann Hieronymus Schroeter

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2006), Letters, Letters, Volume 14

Sir,

—The article on Charles Edward Burton (HI 14.1, Jan./Feb. 2006) wasvery interesting and widened my knowledge of the history of astronomy.Although the Italian Giovanni Schiaparelli claimed in 1880 to havediscovered the network of ‘canals’, he was not the first. Thisphenomenon had been discovered by the German astronomer JohannHieronymus Schroeter (1745–1816), senior civil servant at the villageof Lilienthal near Bremen in the kingdom of Hanover. In 1781 heconstructed the largest observatory in Europe and the largest telescopeon the Continent. Only Herschel’s telescope in England was bigger, yetless practical in use (Schroeter’s telescope was constructed in such away that it could be moved in any direction, and a full night’s watchon one particular planet was possible).
With his telescope Schroeter mapped the sun, moon, Venus, Mars andother planets. The observatory was so famous that in 1800 the firstastronomical society was founded under the patronage of Prince AdolphFrederick. In 1806 a manuscript of 985 pages and 230 graphs concerninghis discoveries on Mars was finished, but it could not be printed owingto Napoleon’s occupation of Hanover. With the burning of the villageand observatory of Lilienthal by the retreating French in 1813Schroeter lost most of his papers and books, but saved the manuscript.After a long odyssey the script finally reached the University ofLeiden, where it was published by Dr Terby and Prof. Van de SandeBakhuyzen.
In his work Schroeter could distinguish the surface of the planetMars and knew that there were no so-called ‘canals’. But he discoveredthat these ‘lines’ were actually ‘dust storms’ on the planet, which henoted in detail. The graphs by Burton appended to the History Irelandarticle are detailed reproductions of such dust storms around the‘large Syrte’. Using his own sharp telescope mirrors, Schroeterdiscovered that the two poles on Mars were of different substances;furthermore, he could calculate the height of mountains. Owing to theunion of England and Hanover under George I in 1714, English and Irishastronomers were the first to know the latest discoveries of Schroeter,because Schroeter had agreed to report his discoveries to the king inexchange for royal support for his research.

—Yours etc.,
Dr ANDREAS BOLDT
NUI Maynooth

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